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Chilling Look At What's Enabled The Rise of Plutocratic Authoritarianism Around The Globe

April 7, 2018

Tags: "The demise of the nation state", Rana Dasgupta, The Guardian Long Read, end of the social contract

Please take the time to read "The demise of the nation state" by Rana Dasgupta in The Guardian of 5 Apr 2018. This article is important because it's possibly the most cogent explanation thus far of the alarming rise of authoritarian and plutocratic power around the globe.

What makes this development alarming isn't just a matter of philosophical preference for one political structure over another but the fact that it inevitably poses a real and immediate risk for entire populations as to health, safety, and the ability to sustain a reasonable standard of life. In some cultures, it has caused the breakdown of public life and the systems that support it. In a few, it is leading to government-endorsed or -enabled violence, even genocide, affecting millions of people.

Even in those societies where the breakdown of public life is more gradual, this plutocratic authoritarianism is inevitably accompanied by the diminishment of the rights and status of most citizens.

Ironically, this breakdown of the existing order is linked directly to the decline of the nation state, that once seemingly invincible bastion of progress and protector of those same rights.

Emerging in the sixteenth-century in the vacuum created by the simultaneous decline of both feudalism and the Roman Catholic Church and enabled by the Protestant Reformation and the Renaissance, the rise of the nation state was accelerated by the emergence of a prosperous middle class that not only demanded independence from feudal overlords but also wanted improved conditions for trade. This, in turn, created the need for a different kind of state to handle the transition from a world in which wealth lay in land to one in which wealth increasingly came from trade. The need to generate an environment supporting commercial activities led to states organized and powerful enough not only to encourage and control the use of economic resources through trade routes, monetary systems, taxation, and the like but also capable of protecting the geographical, political, and cultural boundaries of the state. Common people of the feudal system began to see themselves as English, French, Spanish, etc., rather than the villeins and serfs of a particular liege lord. Remnants of the old feudal relationship lingered for centuries, albeit somewhat modified, but they existed alongside a growing sense of national identity. (For all you specialist scholars who are blanching at the rapid crunching / simplification of the facts, I'm not writing a thesis, just setting the stage.)

Even to a casual scholar of history (History 101 was too breathlessly fast to be anything but casual), the significance was clear. The rise of the nation state was the beginning of a new order that held all sorts of positive possibilities for a much wider range of social and economic classes. The activities of those economic elites who were the primary beneficiaries of state activities to improve trade began to be regulated to encourage greater utility not only for the few but the many. In particular, there was a growing sense that what benefited society in the long run benefited all classes within it to one degree or another - at its lowest level this derived from a suspicion that lower classes that were better treated were less likely to revolt and destroy those whose economic interests benefited most from national protection and encouragement. This led ultimately to the idea that, in addition to national security, government owes its citizenry a certain standard of life in the form of public education, public health, decent infrastructure, fair law enforcement, and the like. The money to create this citizenry-friendly environment came from taxation as well as licensing fees for nationally owned resources, and the economic elite, have - albeit often grudgingly - accepted this as a tradeoff for the benefit they derive from public policy as to spending priorities, taxation, resource use, etc. In effect, it has been the nation state that has maintained a balance between the needs and priorities of different economic and social classes.

It is disturbing that the benefits of the nation state are being tossed aside in the interest of wealth accumulation by a relative handful of people around the world. The accumulation is being made possible by the growing inability of the nations in which wealth is generated to tax it for the general good. This, in turn, has been facilitated by the free movement of capital to whichever jurisdiction - in return for a low percentage of the spoils - will not only regulate and tax it the least but will even allow it to remain hidden. This has been the core cause of growing economic inequality across the globe.

Which brings us back to Dasgupta's perceptive piece in The Guardian as to just how the decline of the nation state is threatening global peace and order.

The entire piece - one of The Guardian's Long Reads - is well worth the time of anyone who cares about political realities, but this is the part that has lingered with me:

"The destruction of state authority over capital has of course been the explicit objective of the financial revolution that defines our present era. As a result, states have been forced to shed social commitments in order to reinvent themselves as custodians of the market. This has drastically diminished national political authority in both real and symbolic ways... The picture is the same all over the west: the wealth of the richest continues to skyrocket, while post-crisis austerity cripples the social-democratic welfare state. We can all see the growing fury at governments that refuse to fulfil their old moral promise but it is most probable that they no longer can."

This chilling encapsulation makes one realize that the nation state has come full circle. Called into being centuries ago partly by the need of a growing merchant class for government support of structures to facilitate trade, it has been sustained by its ability to tax the resulting profits for the good of the larger society. Now, the nation state's geophysical validity has been so undermined by the exploding ability of the wealthiest to move money unchecked and largely unobserved that it is forced to court their voluntary support by the use of public policy to enable even further their growing economic and political power.

Read Dasgupta's piece. It's a killer.